Fire Fighting Forces Bring Blaze Under Control after Stubborn Battle

A BLAZE touched off by a series of violent explosions ripped through 10 river barges loaded with millions of gallons of gasoline on Oct. 2, last, at the Esso Standard Oil Company’s river terminal in Memphis, Tenn. It was characterized by Fire Chief John Klinck as the worst fire of its kind in the 25 years he had been in the Department.

The first explosion occurred shortly before 12:30 P.M. from an undetermined cause, on one of 10 barges loaded with 102,000 barrels of aviation gasoline, diesel fuel and cleaning compounds, which were at the foot of Wisconsin street on the Mississippi River.

About half the 4,284,000-gallon cargo had been unloaded when an explosion occurred without warning. The unloading process involved pumping the fuel from the barges through pipelines which run up a river bluff to 18 storage tanks. The alertness of a terminal employe, who narrowly escaped with his life, in turning valves on pipelines and halting a flow of fuel to the storage tanks, is said to have prevented fire from reaching the tanks.

Four men were working on the barges, which were tied up two abreast, when the first blast came, followed by a flash of fire. The towboat Esso Louisiana, which had brought in the tow, was cut loose just in time to escape the onrushing fire, spurred by additional explosions which shook the entire area, until nearly 4:30 P.M.

For a time the entire terminal covering 25 acres was threatened, but firemen, converging on the scene from three alarms, managed to contain the blaze even though the intense heat kept them at a distance. Firefighters concentrated on playing water and foam streams along the river bluff and on the fill and discharge pipes to keep down the heat. The fire burned about 400 feet up the bluff and along a wide section of the riverfront, involving the dock.

Firemen hooked up lines to foam hydrants maintained in the terminal and drew on two large tanks of foam chemicals kept in the terminal by Esso. Each tank contained 68,000 gallons of foam chemicals. At the outset, the fire could not be fought from the waterside, but three hours after the blaze began, firemen succeeded in getting a pumper and deluge truck on a barge and this was put into standby service a few yards front the bank.

When the heat partially ruptured one of two pipes used to carry high octane gasoline to terminal storages, and fuel leaked from it, fire fighters played a steady spray of water fog on the area to dissipate the vapors and cool the pipes. They were handicapped somewhat by the fact that the original blast blew a cap off a water line leading to the dock from the terminal, which caused water pressure to drop in the vicinity before the cap was replaced. Firemen were forced to stretch hose lines as far as three blocks.

Two final explosions at 4:23 P.M. caused spectators and firemen to fall to the ground and retreat from the area. But fire fighters returned and kept foam and fog lines on the blaze, and on exposures, all through the day and night. Some 175 men answered the three alarms. Over sixty firemen remained on the scene next day, many of whom suffered from heat and exhaustion. Meanwhile the vast cloud of smoke, the broadcasting of the emergency, and the movement of fire apparatus through the city brought large crowds to the. area.

Memphis oil terminal fire at its height

One man was missing and presumed dead. Of the three injured, one, a fireman, Captain W. B. Perry, was critically hurt when the car in which he was traveling on the recall to the quarters ot Engine 7 for fire duty collided with an ambulance which was conveying another injured fireman, Marvin T. Pickett, to the hospital, after he had been overcome by smoke. Fireman Robert Adams, who was driving Captain Perry’s car, also received injuries in the collision.

The three alarms brought all off-shift firemen into action and caused movement of nearly all the city’s fire forces. On the first alarm (12:23 P.M.), ladder and pumper companies from three stations, with the fire patrol (salvage squad and rescue unit) responded. The south district chief and deputy chief from headquarters also rolled.

The second alarm (12 26 P.M.) brought into action companies from four stations and a fire patrol, with Fire Chief John Klinck, the north district chief and about six other district and deputy chiefs. Equipment moved in to cover from six outlying stations.

On the third alarm (12:29 P.M.). apparatus and men from five more stations responded, while forces from seven other stations were dispatched to coverin empty quarters. The telephone, tele vision and radio were all used to summon off-duty personnel.

Early on the morning of the 3rd, four burning barges broke away from their moorings and floated down river, pursued by a towboat with empty barges from the U. S. Corps of Engineers, in an effort to force the blazing inferno shorewards.

Property loss was variously estimated as high as $2 1/2 million.

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